This article appears in Issue 28 | 2016 of the Professional Accountant
Social media has been a buzzword for the past nine years, and has grown up through several phases before becoming what it is now – one of the most powerful ways for businesses to promote products and services and build reputation at a fraction of the cost of traditional marketing methods.
Managing the reputation of a business used to be an expensive exercise limited to those with access to big budgets and creative content creators. The digital revolution however disrupted the marketing industry by making it possible for anyone with an internet connection to circumvent the privilege and limitations of traditional mass media.
Business owners now have more control than ever in determining the course and success of marketing efforts, but many are still hesitant to embrace the benefits of social media for business. Technology, potential reputation damage, and a fear of making mistakes on social media appear to be the three main inhibitors to getting started.
Supplementing a website with an active presence on social media has been proven to positively influence purchasing decisions. Having social media accounts is however not sufficient. The accounts need to be updated regularly, be of value to the visitor, and provide proof that a client will be in good hands.
In professional services, word of mouth marketing is the most powerful and successful marketing tool. Social media drives digital word of mouth, and can therefore not be dismissed by professional accountants as a short-lived trend only suitable for personal pursuits.
Choose the right platform and content
It is important to remember that social media is not limited to public platforms. Tools like the broadcast function on WhatsApp also form part of social communication, and can play an great part in reminding clients about deadlines, legislative updates etc. Similarly, an office group on WhatsApp can significantly improve productivity, as long as it is used responsibly and within pre-set limits.
A low-risk way of getting started with public social media platforms is to just lurk around and learn from how others are doing it. This will help to provide information on trends, strategies, and types of content that align to intended results.
Types of social stories that could work well for professional accountants include observations made during events or training attended, comments on new legislation, sharing global industry developments, advice on problems are commonly shared by clients. Content doesn’t always have to be created; balancing original content with finding and sharing content (with proper attribution and credit to the creator) that is relevant to a social audience is perfectly acceptable.
Social media has become largely driven by visual content. It is therefore important to not only rely on text, but to also share short videos with advisory snippets, photos of things that lead to a significant realisation, graphs and infographics that support statements, and even lighthearted images that trigger a desired emotion.
After the learning phase, the best way to get over the fear of participating in social media is to pick up a smart phone, start taking photos and videos with the phone, and posting it on social accounts through the apps downloadable to the phone. The apps have been programmed to take new users through each step with relative ease.
The most popular social platform for pure business is Linkedin, but Facebook has been proven to also drive sales and loyalty due to its more personal nature and easier interface. Twitter is still the most popular for sharing thoughts during events. For those more experienced in social media use, Instagram and SnapChat are predicted to rise in popularity and give the more well known platforms a run for their money.
A simple Google search will deliver a myriad of articles, guides, and videos on the Internet on how to get started – or how to become a more advanced user – of social media tools and how to grow the number of relevant social followers.
Grow the social audience
The mere existence of a social media account won’t attract followers – called a social audience – just because it exists. The relevance and number of followers will grow steadily only if a social account is promoted on platforms that already reach the intended audience.
Including a link to or mention of social media accounts in email signatures, on websites, letterheads, and marketing material makes it easier for potential audience members to connect with a social account.
For those that stumble on a social media account after an Internet search, a great first impression relies heavily on the information contained in the profile section. An official logo or photo as profile picture, combined with comprehensive information in the profile fields is imperative. The profile section is also a great place to set expectations by stating what type of content the audience can expect.
A social media audience will only interact with posts if it is of some value to them. Stories that are entertaining, helpful, or educational to the audience will encourage them to regularly visit and interact with the social account, while posts that just sell a service or promote a product will be a strong deterrent.
The golden rule of responsible social media use is to overthink everything before posting. Make sure it aligns with the SAIPA code of conduct, and the morals and values of the business.
When responsible social content does trigger an unintended response, it is best to be prepared to respond with a link to independent third-party content addressing opposing views and stating facts. If this does not defuse a situation, it might be necessary to contact an offender via direct message as a next step to determine whether a resolution is possible.
In the case of verbal abuse or unrelenting negative comments it best to make use of the privacy settings of a social account to block transgressors from further interaction. A public social account is better than a private social account, but not if it is undeservedly detrimental to the reputation of a business.
The best precaution against potential social media risks is proactively training, rather than reactively monitoring, anyone that will be managing social media accounts. Managing social media accounts should not be relegated to the youngest employee based on an assumption that they are more comfortable with using social technology. Business owners should take responsibility for stay on top of social activity by actively participating, even if the responsibility for social activity has been assigned to someone else.